Backstage with John Nolan
Interview by Backstage guest Josh Hafner
Photo: Jamie Maldonado Photography
An interview with John Nolan of Taking Back Sunday
When Taking Back Sunday announced in late March that they were returning to the original line-up that produced their seminal debut album Tell All Your Friends, fans of the band’s work from nearly a decade ago were ecstatic, while some current fans scratched their heads. Former (and once again current) vocalist/guitarist and Straylight Run founder John Nolan sat down with Josh Hafner to discuss life in Lawrence, the band’s upcoming tour and album, and precisely how one ends up taking back Taking Back Sunday.
You’ve moved from Long Island to Lawrence almost three years ago. How has life in the Midwest affected your music?
I think after the first year or so after living here it started to leave me more time when I was home from tour to work on music, just because when I’m home from tour here there’s very few people I know. It’s kind of nice actually to have it that way. In the past when I knew a lot of people and had a lot of friends, you get home from tour and then you spend the first two weeks home catching up with people, which is great. But there’s something that’s been really interesting just coming home and having time for myself, having peace and quiet and time to get back into songwriting. I don’t know how that’s affected the music, but it’s had some effect in one way or another.
What do you think of Lawrence’s music scene? Are there any bands you keep an eye on?
I really don’t know a lot of the local bands. I like the Get Up Kids, but I don’t think of them as a local band. I don’t know too much of what goes on at a local level. I’d like to find out more about it. I saw Ad Aspera Per Astra. Is that how you pronounce it? They were really good. And Ghosty, I’ve seen those guys play a bunch and I like them a lot. They’re really good. The more I’ve listened to their stuff the more impressed I’ve been. They’re very good.
Do you get to make it out to a lot of shows here?
When I can, I just saw Mansions and Weatherbox at the Jackpot. Before that I went to see Stardeath and White Dwarfs, who’ve played with The Flaming Lips a lot. They played at The Jackpot as well. I saw St. Vincent at The Bottleneck. That’s recently what I’ve seen.
Why move to the Midwest?
I always liked it here when we’ve come through on tour. Over the years I’ve kind of gotten to know the downtown a little bit. A big reason, honestly, was the cost of living. That’s not an exciting reason to move, but the amount of money we were paying to just live on Long Island, it starts to get a little ridiculous. Especially the older you get, you don’t have that much of a social life anyways. I spend most of my time staying in the house, so I can do that just as well in Lawrence. Camile’s family is reasonably close to here, so we had some connection to somebody out here. We just figured we’d give it a try and we liked it so we’ve stayed.
Which band were you with when you toured through Lawrence?
Actually Taking Back Sunday never came through here for some reason. Straylight Run came through a lot, though. The first two years of touring I feel like we almost came through here every time. It’s always one of those places you get really excited about seeing on the itinerary.
Who or what was the main force that got the ball rolling on this new lineup?
[Drummer] Mark [O’Connell] called [bassist] Shaun [Cooper] and me both to talk to us about it first. He put himself out there as the spokesman. He believed it could happen and convinced Shaun and [guitarist] Eddie [Reyes] that it could. It was early this year, end of January I think. It was weird. Straylight Run had talked a while before that about calling it quits for a while. Oddly enough, whatever day this was, we had a conversation on conference call that afternoon and kind of officially talked about what we needed to do. And it was late that night that Mark called me, which is very weird. I don’t really believe, I don’t know, maybe, I don’t know if I believe in fate or anything like that, but it was a very strange coincidence that later that night he happened to call me after everything was set with Straylight Run.
I was very skeptical. I spent the first fifteen minutes just asking in different ways if he was serious and if it was something that Adam and Eddie were backing and even if I did say yes, would it matter. When he assured me that everyone else was into it if Shaun and I were, then I spent probably another fifteen minutes talking with him about what I could see being good about it and what I could see not working. I don’t think I gave him an answer for about an hour and a half into the conversation. But I was able to imagine how it would work, which was something I was not able to do before that. We were on tour and my wife was with me. I’m on the phone for a long time ands he comes up and asks me who I’m talking to and I tell her ‘He wants to know if I want to join Taking Back Sunday again,’ and she said ‘Well, what do you think?’ and I said ‘Well, maybe.’
So in an hour and a half it went from skepticism to possible optimism.
We said, ‘Let’s all start talking again and see what happens.’
What happened to the Matt Rubano and Matthew Fazzi, the members who ‘left’ just prior to the announcement?
I actually never met either of those guys. But that was really hard for the rest of the band. Once it seemed like Shaun and I could be in the band, that decision was not something that they felt good about. It’s just kind of like, if everybody wanted to do it and we thought it was the best thing, it’s what they had to do I guess. It was pretty crazy.
On your profile for the question and answer site Formspring there was one question noting one of the reasons you said you originally left Taking Back Sunday was that you couldn’t keep going at the band’s pace and asked how you thought you could continue again now that the band is considerably more famous.
In your answer you said, “I’ve also realized since then that even though dealing with success can be stressful, it’s nothing compared with the stress of being unsuccessful.’ What did you mean by that?
When everything happened with Taking Back Sunday getting widely known I was about 24 I think. At that point all I could think of was how this wasn’t fun anymore. There was all this responsibility attached to the band now, all this stress. The whole reason I got into doing it was to have fun and then now there’s all these gigantic stressful things. It changed all my relationships with my friends. People start treating you differently. Strangers start treating you differently. For me at that time I was so overwhelmed by how insane everything was and how my life had been taken over by this gigantic, crazy stressful thing that was out of my control. I didn’t know where it was going and I didn’t know where I wanted it to be going to begin with. When I was young that was really intense for me. It really screwed with my head for a while and was really hard to deal with. Everybody in the band was also going through that same thing in their own way; everyone’s heads were exploding. It was happening so quickly, with all of us butting heads and not feeling the same things.
With Straylight Run putting out our major label debut [Needles and Space], it was us sort of trying to step things up exposure-wise, broadening our audience and make a go of it. Within six months of the album coming out, we were dropped from the label and the album was done for. It was something for me that was really insane to deal with at that time, having just geared up to do the major label thing the way we want to do it and go for it and six months later to be like ‘OK, we’re done, that didn’t work out.’ Whatever I think of the album artistically, success or failure, there’s the practical side of it doesn’t matter at all what because when it comes down to it, things just didn’t work out. That’s why I would describe it as unsuccessful. I stand behind that album artistically, and the choices that we made and I made, but it was the opposite of what we were going for. That was very, very difficult. When you’re in that position you start thinking of all the complaints you had of being successful and they start to seem a little bit silly when faced with ‘I don’t know if in three years I’ll be able to still make a living playing music.’ When you get to that point it really starts to put things into perspective. That’s the longest possible answer I could give you.
Until recently, Jim Suptic, one of the guitarists of The Get Up Kids, worked at the Home Depot here in Lawrence.
That’s a crazy thing, you know? For him, to have to not do anymore something that has literally been your life and dream, that’s really hard stuff. There are harder things in life to go through, but it’s pretty hard to come to terms with. It never got there, luckily, for me, but it was getting close. You start to see that it’s a reality.
A lot of bands that were blowing up around the time of ‘Tell All Your Friends’ are coming back again to do reunion tours for the ten-year anniversary of their popular albums. The Get Up Kids toured for ‘Something to Write Home About’ –
Jimmy Eat World did Clarity, right?”
And Appleseed Cast did their last date on a tour where they exclusively played their popular Low Level Owl albums from years ago.
They’re a local band too. I always forget that. I used to listen to them ten, fifteen years ago and I didn’t know they were still a band until I came here.
So it’s nice that Taking Back Sunday is writing new material instead of just doing a Tell All Your Friends tour.
We might do that eventually for maybe the ten-year anniversary or something in March of 2012. But I was also psyched about that, though. We all agreed to work on new music and make this about pushing things forward and concentrating on what we’re doing right now instead of making it a nostalgia act. We’ll be playing all their old songs, but the hope is to maintain the past and keep the focus on the future.
What about this upcoming tour? Will you be playing any songs from the TBS albums you weren’t on?
I’m kind of leaving that up to them because I don’t really know what makes sense or what doesn’t. We’re definitely going to try to at least cover the stuff between ‘Tell All Your Friends’ and now. We talked about playing doing a couple Straylight Run songs. We’ll see how it works. We haven’t played anything yet as far as a set, but everybody’s in to it. We talked about ‘Hands in the Sky,’ which makes sense. That song could have been a Taking Back Sunday song, basically, and then ‘Existentialism [on Prom Night],’ which would change a little more to have them do it. Mark did originally play the songs on that first demo of it, so he knows what to do with it.
Who’s touring with you for those six dates?
Person L is going to open up the first four dates. But I think we’re still figuring out the last two dates, but Person L is set, which I’m psyched about.
If you could tour with anyone for those last two dates, in some dreamy idealistic touring world, who would it be?
The Flaming Lips and Radiohead would be my dream bands to tour with. I’ve known for a long time that that’s not any more realistic than touring with The Beatles. But a lot of the bands I got to tour with when I was solo-touring were some of the funnest people to be on tour with. We did a tour with Person L and Brian Bonz and they are the kind of bands you want to watch every night because you can always find something new. I would love to tour with both of those guys as much as possible. Other than that, Straylight Run did a tour with Minus the Bear, a band that I would pay to see easily and getting to watch them every night, I would put that package together: Person L, Minus the Bear and Brian Bonz.
Do you feel like you’re writing from a different place with the recent TBS material than from your previous solo work?
It’s been interesting so far with Taking Back Sunday. It’s only a couple of months into it, but so far what we’ve been doing in Texas is just spending that time working on music. We live on the studio in a house together. We’ve done three weeks of that or so. When we’re home, not that much gets done. Everybody retires to their separate places. So when I’m home and I have the time, what I’ve been doing is working on my own the same way I was with the solo project before it. Naturally it ends up being a different kind of thing not just because of the lack of collaboration but because of the environment of being at home as opposed to being around a bunch of other people and being influenced by them.
When you all began writing songs again, was it like picking up from the same page or could you sense seven years had gone by for everyone?
It was kind of a weird mix of both those things. Everything really clicked immediately. It was pretty crazy. I think the first song that we put together must have come together in 20 minutes or a half hour, without lyrics and melodies, but the music, the arrangement, the whole structure of the song – it just worked. So there’s that familiarity with each other to understand where people are coming from, what they’re talking about, how to work with them and falling into the same roles, but there’s also this added excitement of everyone being able to do that much better because of where they’re at right now. Everyone can pinpoint what they like and don’t like in the process and nobody’s taking things personally. It was different in that sense, but similar in that we did go back to our old roles in a lot of ways too.
Do you feel like the new material is a direct continuation from Tell All Your Friends? Like how ‘Superman Returns’ just skipped Superman 3 and 4 and pretended to be the sequel?
It is a little bit like that. I don’t know if it’s like that with the other guys. It’s a very strange thing to experience because it’s so different than a typical reunion. It feels like what we would have done for the second record if we all were in sync with each other and still psyched to be around each other. That’s the best thing I can think of to describe it. I think people are going to be surprised when they hear it because you wouldn’t describe it as a combination of Straylight Run mixed with Taking Back Sunday. It doesn’t sound like one of Taking Back Sunday’s albums mixed with another one. It still has its roots in the first album, but it just goes off in a whole direction from the first album that none of us have gone into yet, so it’s kind of interesting in that way. I think everyone’s on new territory. It’s cool.
That’s good. You can always tell when a band puts out a new album and they weren’t a little scared recording it.
That was one of the reasons I felt confident about getting back into things. When we were talking before we made the decision, everyone was so for pushing things forward and not trying to recreate anything, not even saying what they wanted to make it like. Just being ‘Let’s go in and try to make the best songs we can and ultimately make an album full of really solid songs, whatever that means.’ And everybody was on that page and so far that’s the way everyone’s approached it.
We’ve been home for about 3 weeks since then and I’ll be going back next week actually for the last week of writing and pre-production. It’s extremely desolate, very far outside of El Paso. We just say El Paso because that’s where you fly into but it’s like a 45-minute drive out to nowhere and it’s like a 2,000-acre Pecan ranch. We’re on the same property half a mile away with its own studio near that and nothing but farm for acres and acres. If you go far enough on that property you actually get to the Mexican border, you can drive right up to that fence that’s right up the border.
How did writing the new songs at a desolate Pecan farm affect the new material?
I think us being cooped up with nobody else around and being able to cut loose and having each other influence each other every day in life – talking to each other, drinking with each other- has really affected how the music has come out. It’s not necessarily the physical environment, but the circumstances I think have affected the music in a really positive way. Just complete privacy and ability to concentrate and not have any outside influences.
How did you find out about the farm?
Our manager was just looking for good, secluded places to record and she found that. We originally went there because everything was very secretive so we were trying to find an out-of-the-way place. We weren’t even sure what was going to come of it, if we would even go through with it at that point. But it just worked for us really well, the whole environment. We’ll probably record in LA, which I’m not looking forward to so much.
I’ve heard few musicians speak well about L.A.
There are good things about it, but it’s not the kind of place I want to spend two months in. But the producer that’s lined up, from what the band says, is amazing. I’ve never worked with him, but they’re all really exited. He did Louder Now and then they didn’t work with him for the last one, but they missed him and wanted to work with him again.
You should have talked them into recording at Black Lodge Recording in Eudora.
I would have loved that. That would be great. It would have been a tough sell though, especially to [producer] Eric Valentine.